Talking Merrily About Your Research

Joseph Barber advises on how to discuss with family and friends over the holidays what exactly it is you do as a Ph.D. student or postdoc.

December 21, 2015
 

It’s the end of the year, and so it’s somewhat traditional for posts like this to discuss end-of-year topics -- and there are plenty of career-relevant topics that I could choose from. Perhaps an especially pertinent one for Ph.D. students and postdocs is how to enjoy spending time with family and friends when the question, “So what do you do now?” always seems to pop up as a subject of prolonged conversation.

If you are a Ph.D. student and postdoc, then that question can sometimes feel a little daunting. Ignoring the fact that someone in your family probably still thinks you are a medical doctor, how to figure out the best way to describe yourself takes some careful introspection and a lot of practice. Here are a couple of descriptions that I would not recommend:

  • “I’m a Ph.D. student.”
  • “I’m a postdoc.”

Those are probably the least descriptive and least informative ways of talking about yourself and the interesting work you do -- especially when your audience may include people who never use these terms in their day-to-day life. Rather than simply stating what your role is, consider talking about what you actually do. Here are some examples:

  • “I’m exploring the different ways that people have used poetry in expressing their feelings about war and slavery.”
  • “I’m looking for ways to create new coatings for medical devices that can be implanted in people’s bodies -- to help them work inside the body for longer.”
  • “I’m comparing the different views of citizenship in the Middle East and Europe from the perspective of women, looking specifically at how their role as a mother affects these views.”
  • “I’m using archived library manuscripts to look at how the history of political demonstrations in this country has been seen from the perspective of politicians in the ruling party.”

The terms “postdoc” or “graduate student” won’t conjure up very active images in people’s heads as they try to picture you, so it is fine to be more descriptive. Talking about yourself as a scientist, a scholar or even a teacher can be better options.

If you are talking to family and friends, then you probably don’t need to cover the specifics of any aspect of your research. Details such as the type of chemical nanocompound that you are testing, or the specific cellular pathway that you’ve spent years exploring, can all be de-emphasized slightly so that you can highlight the parts of your narrative that are going to better engage your listeners. Such specific details won’t have much meaning for most people, anyway. Your goal is to provide enough information about what you do to allow everyone you are conversing with to have a clear image of you and your work in their heads.

In talking about my own research as a Ph.D. student, if I had said, “I perform consumer-demand assessments for appetitive and consummatory behaviors in Gallus gallus domesticus to elucidate how psychological well-being is affected by stocking density,” I would have been pretty accurate from a scientific perspective, but most people would leave the conversation with little idea about my research. I might as well have just said “I’m a Ph.D. student” and finished the conversation there.

Of course, it would make more sense if I had said, “As a scientist, I watch the behavior of domestic chickens in environments that mimic farming conditions to see how they respond to the changing behavior of neighboring chickens within their tight-knit social groups. I’m trying to figure out how different group sizes affect the health of the birds -- with the ultimate goal of making farming more effective and bird friendly.”

With this narrative, I would hope that you are picturing something much clearer, action oriented and more engaging. In the statement above, I have tried to respond to one of the possible questions you can still get even after crafting a meaningful research statement: “Why?” It can sometimes help to explain the reason you are doing what you do -- not necessarily in terms of the impact your work will have on the world, but definitely on the impact it has had on you. You can head off the “Why?” question by making your narrative a little more personal:

  • “I’ve always been interested in how different cultures interact in historical settings, because I think it helps us understand some of the modern-day perspectives that we hear about in the news right now. So I am looking at …”

As you talk about your research in any end-of-year gathering, you will meet some people who are interested in what you do, some who are not really interested, and some who are just innately unhelpful. Nobody enjoys family gatherings when they are forced to sit next to the grouchy old uncle who does nothing but offer negative criticisms for every choice you have made and everything you do. When it is family, you might have to endure some of this, but it is important that you don’t absorb the negativity from these sorts of interactions.

If you are applying for academic jobs, then this time of the year is stressful enough anyway with the multiple applications you are sending (or with the lack of positions for which to apply). You have to keep in mind that some things you have control over and some things you don’t. You can’t make your grouchy old uncle interested in your research. You didn’t do anything to create a lack of academic jobs in your field. But you can always control the way you talk to yourself (your inner voice) and the way you project yourself to others.

You should also realize that talking to family about your career goals and doubts is probably much more difficult than meeting with a career adviser at your institution (especially if there are advisers who serve the postdoc and graduate student population specifically). Family members have sometimes unrealistic expectations about you and your life. Career advisers primarily focus on helping you identify and then work toward your own career goals. Besides, we won’t ask you if you are still seeing that nice Jennifer -- even if she was such a nice person.

Finally, if you are looking for a positive, feel-good activity for the end of the year, balance talking about your research with asking other people you meet about their work. You can do some great informational interviewing with family and friends, too, and this is a fantastic way to get better at doing it. You might learn about how others are using their skills and knowledge in their varied jobs, and you also might be surprised at the amount of overlap between the skills others use within or outside of academe, and the skills that you have been developing. You don’t have to do anything with this information, but it never hurts to be aware of other career paths out there.

Also, adding new people to your network is always useful -- if not for you, then perhaps for others you can help with their career goals. For example, your friend Jennifer might love to make a connection with your aunt who happens to work at the company that she is really interested in. Networking works in all directions, and being in a position to help someone else through your contacts is a great way to illustrate that there are others out there willing and able to help you, too. Here are some examples of informational interviewing questions you can adapt.

In short, taking the opportunity to practice talking about your research at the end of this year is the perfect way to get yourself ready for the new one.

Bio

Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.

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